|Black Oak Ensemble in a "Silenced Voices" performance|
And no wonder: Each of the creators represented in Black Oak Ensemble's "Silenced Voices" (Cedille) was among millions bedeviled by the Nazi program of Jewish extermination. Only one of them escaped with his life; the other five died in the camps. For them, anxiety in music could hardly be a matter of aesthetic choices alone.
Of course, the stylistic variety of 20th-century music has to account for much of the individuality evident in these compositions. The fate of the European Jewish community, however, understandably looms over this program and how Black Oak Ensemble's excellent performances are likely to be received today. In support of the recording, the trio is performing "Silenced Voices" in concert around Europe, climaxed by a performance next month at a music festival in Terezin.
Dick Kattenburg's "Trio a cordes" opens the disc. Fleeing detection after the German occupation of the Netherlands, the composer may have been informed upon, leading to his demise in 1944, presumably at Auschwitz. The string trio is a youthful work, resting on a persistent lyrical impulse holding sway above a disturbing undercurrent. It covers a lot of ground within a span of less than five minutes.
For serious, classically based formal mastery, the disc's best piece is by Hans Krasa, an established composer when he was imprisoned in the Czech town of Terezin, then transferred to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. His buoyant aspect is represented by "Tanec," a catchy, energetic piece with singing melodies riding on top. The formal mastery appears in the innovative Passacaglia and Fuga, which successfully cover a wide range of expression. This breadth is expertly displayed by the cohesive group — Desiree Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello, and violist Aurelien Fort Pederzoli.
The disc concludes with the longest piece and the one by a composer threatened like the others by the Holocaust, but a man who survived in the Netherlands and thrived there after the Second World War, dying in his mid-80s in 1989. Geza Frid's "Trio a cordes," op. 1, stems from his young adulthood under challenge in his native Hungary/Romania. The late romantic feeling of the slow movement has as companions a playful opening Allegretto and a vigorous Allegro giocoso all'ungherese. True to its heading, the finale presents an authentic-sounding Hungarian profile. Throughout, the Black Oakers exhibit precise dynamic control and rhythmic elan.
The spirit of having to face enforced silence as a composer comes through alarmingly in Paul Hermann's "Stijktrio," which sounds atonal at first, yet moves through a freely rhythmic and restless landscape to find a tonal center at the end. It's not reading into the music too much to find strategies of desperation and escape fruitfully embodied in it.
Also impressive is Gideon Klein's Trio for Violin, Viola, and Cello, a piece in three movements with a Bartokian atmosphere at first. Looked at one way, Klein seems somewhat uncomfortable with the theme-and-variations form in the second movement; but this may be counted a plus insofar as he meant to suggest that large contrasts best suit the 20th-century apprehension of inherited forms. In any case, Klein's snuffed-out creativity parallels that of his companions on this disc, prohibited (or, in Frid's case, stalled) from natural development in both life and art by a historic mass atrocity.